Review: For Alert Force

For Alert Force: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON

Having essentially run low on World War III books that both held interest to me and weren’t already read has been a slight issue for this blog. Thankfully, I found some newer ones. One of these was Jim Clonts’ FOR ALERT FORCE: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON, an awkwardly-titled book telling the tale of SAC crews in World War III.

This is a near-immediate 1980s nuclear World War III with none of the contrivances to keep it conventional for any length of time that appear in other works. Clonts, a veteran of B-52s himself, tells their story of fighting in these apocalyptic conditions. The book is good for what it is, but tends to wobble a little.

It has the exact strengths and weaknesses of what something written by someone with personal experience brings. On one hand, it’s detailed and a lot of it is accurate (as far as I could tell). A lot of the scenes are tense and well-done. On the other, it has tons and tons of Herman Melville-grade explanations of everything minor and technical.

Still, it could have been a lot worse than it is, and works as an aviation thriller. It’s not the most pleasant, but as this is about nuclear war, that’s to be expected. A more focused Chieftains (albeit with airplanes instead of tanks) is not a bad thing.

Finally, I noticed that it openly declares itself an “alternate history” on the cover, something a lot of fiction, even the kind that could easily qualify as such, doesn’t do. This fits the description unambiguously. It takes place long before its writing time and has history-changing events. So it’s interesting that Clonts felt comfortable enough to label it as such.

In short, I didn’t regret reading this book.

Review: Tales of World War III 1985

Tales of World War III: 1985

Looking back at the progression of this blog, I’m reminded a lot of the story of trying to make a cockpit design that could fit the “average pilot”, and then finding that no one actually met that criteria. I feel similarly when I look back at just how little anything actually met my stereotype.

Brad Smith’s Tales of World War III: 1985 series comes closest, edging out Larry Bond’s earlier work. It’s done by a wargame designer and thus features the wargame-friendly setting of 1985 Europe, with battles taking place in various parts of it. There’s a lot of technical description.

I don’t feel nearly as much negativity towards it as I would have and did in the past. Smith has sincerely tried to build characterization, even if the execution is still often clunky and the characters often Steel Panthers cameras in practice. And the wargaming at least takes the series above Ian Slater in terms of technical accuracy. But it’s still a 51% entry in a niche genre, the pilot who isn’t particularly good or bad but has the dimensions to actually fit well in the “average” cockpit.

Review: The Ultimate Solution

The Ultimate Solution

Eric Norden’s The Ultimate Solution is a fairly early alternate history novel. A short book told in the style of a classic detective novella, it tells the story of an NYPD officer who, after the German victory in World War II and occupation of America, must track down a reappeared Jew, long after they were thought exterminated. Or at least that’s what the nominal plot is about.

The real meaning of this book is a trend in alternate history that this book was a pioneer in-use an Axis victory world as a way to express social commentary about contemporary society. This is the kind of thing that sometimes can be an insightful “mirror darkly” presentation, but often degenerates into massive axe-grinding.

Here it’s the latter, with a vengeance. Norden has the subtlety of Tsar Bombas preceding a parade of NASA Crawlers blaring Korn out of sonic blasters. Everyone is a (literal) puppy kicking monster. It’s so over-the-top it actually takes away from the message. Instead of “this is how good people can believe and do bad things”, it’s the far less profound or interesting “people here are bad”. And since most of the small book is devoted to this horrible horribleness of horrors, there isn’t really much else. This is the kind of book that’s interesting for its place in the chronology of its genre (in this case, alternate history) but has little else to recommend it.

The Lack of Mainstream AH WW3

So, a look at alternate history conventional World War III novels revealed a very small number of them. Even smaller is the number of novels that were alternate history, took place after 1980, and made by larger/mainstream presses. Granted, like in that previous post, I used only the most unambiguous examples. But even I was a little surprised by the number I ended up with.

Zero.

I found two games that fit the criteria. These were World in Conflict and Eugen’s Wargame series. But those are games, and I think they’re a different paradigm. If I wanted to stretch things, I’d go with the Command and Conquer: Red Alert games. Those are kind of like including the Wingman novels in with Hackett and Bond, but they’re alternate World War IIIs.

Yet I’ve seen no actual novels, and if they existed, they’d probably be well below any “too obscure to really ‘matter'” standard. Everything has been either futuristic or contemporary. What I find very telling is the case of Walt Gragg’s The Red Line. That was crudely transformed into a “contemporary” setting instead of being sold as alternate history.

And the big-name AH authors have stayed away. Harry Turtledove has made a series about a 1950s World War III but not a 1980s Fuldapocalypse. The closest Robert Conroy came to one was a book (and one with nukes involved) set in 1963. Of all the topics that other authors choose when they dip into alternate history from time to time, the “conventional WW3” simply isn’t one of them.

Now, there are several reasons I’ve theorized for this. Perhaps the biggest is that it’s a small genre to start with, and there’s little incentive to not go for either a conflict that actually happened or a contemporary one, both of which have more mass appeal. There’s far more of a hook and comfort (as weird as it is to say) with a realistic nuclear conflict. The second-biggest is that much mainstream AH is generally meant to be metaphorical, to represent some contemporary issue through the lens of a different past. To be frank, the prevailing style of most conventional World War III fiction is not the ideal medium to express these. About the best you can get is something directly related to the military in some way.

So this makes printed alternate history World War III something that’s the domain of enthusiasts, for better or worse. While I already knew that to be true in general terms, I didn’t know the extent until I counted it. And the reverse is also true-Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, and Harold Coyle quite understandably did not write tales of a Cold War gone hot a decade or two earlier.

Review: Kirov Season 6

Kirov Season 6

So, I’m FINALLY caught up with the entire Kirov series as of now, a feat of great effort even for me. The Season 6 “Next War” arc is, with hindsight, one of the weakest in the series. Unfortunately for me, it was the first arc I encountered. The second of four World War IIIs depicted in the series (this has to be some kind of record), it follows the World War II mega-arc.

In terms of actual writing, the individual books aren’t any worse than other Kirovs. The problem is its comparative mundanity. It’s one of the most recent examples I’ve seen of the “Captain Beefheart playing normal music” effect. It’s a contemporary World War III. Apart from a few half-hearted hypotheticals here and there, the only really substantive addition is a bigger Russian Navy, and that seems there just to have repeated large sea battles at all.

As for the time travel soap opera, there isn’t that much there. The war starts because Tyrenkov, a time traveler from the 1940s went forward , seized control of contemporary Russia, misinterpreted a possible future where he won as a definite future, and then started the war. Between that and the fetching of more of the time-keys (obvious plot MacGuffins), this is pretty restricted. About the only redeeming part there is the (sadly too small) presence of Ivan Volkov, the closest thing the series has to a primary non-historical antagonist. Volkov is a cross between a puppy-kicking supervillain and a crazy schemer who’s a lot less smart than he thinks he is, and remains my favorite character in the series. While there is some Volkov, there isn’t enough.

The only other new characterization is Tyrenkov, after fleeing to the ship as the war spirals out of control, being forgiven far too easily for my liking. The rest of the main cast stays the way they’ve always been, and they’re swamped by the shallow Steel Panthers Characters.

Otherwise, it’s a mixture of being restrained by semi-realistic orders of battle, cover ground that lots of other wargames have gone over, and, worst, having the contemporary setting give the author a justification to er, opine. It’s not the worst, but it’s still an issue the less “connected” installments didn’t have. It also feels-redundant, going over similar ground that the initial World War III in the books 4-8 arc did (to the point where I not unreasonably thought it was the exact same war), and having the same outcome (nuclear destruction and the ship timeshifting away).

Thankfully, the series improves significantly in the next arc, as a World War III in the altered reality created by the ship’s intervention in World War II allows the “wargame sandbox effect” to really flourish in a way it doesn’t here. Season 6 itself has all the weaknesses of the Kirov series as a whole and very few of the strengths. I’ve compared the series to an overly literalist lets play of an RPG. If that’s the case, this is the dungeon you always disliked.

Review: Rhinelander

Rhinelander

After 31 (!) books, the World War II arc of the Kirov series concludes in Rhinelander. This is what I’ve been reading for the last month as the latest long, sequential series that I had a weird craving for. This book continues the time travel adventures which grow steadily more convoluted and more obviously a way to set up wargame sandboxes.

It also focuses on an alternate World War II where the initial Allied invasion of France came from the south and there were different tanks (including timeshifted modern ones on both sides) and… lots of changes. Much of it is reminiscent of the final battles on the historical western front, only moved up a year. A sort of “mini-Bulge” is conducted as one of the set pieces.

There was no real way that this lummox could conclude gracefully, so it gets a quick brute-force ending with a lot of exposition to smooth things over for the next timeshift and arc, a contemporary World War III that got the series to my attention in the first place. I was nonetheless content with it, and not just because the Kirov series defies normal critical scaling. Especially knowing the nature of the series and the state of the war at this point, having several books of nothing but the Allies advancing without truly serious opposition would not be ideal.

Review: Altered States

Altered States

The ninth Kirov book, Altered States, is where the series really starts to hit its stride. By Schettler’s own admission, the response to the question of “should I write about the missile cruiser’s later adventures or an alternate World War II where the German surface fleet was bigger?” was “Yes.” And he was glad to oblige, combining the cruiser soap opera with a huge naval battle in a location I haven’t seen in a while-the GIUK gap.

(There’s a Kirov, but there’s not any Backfires or Aegis cruisers or F-14s. It’s like my original vision of Fuldapocalypse mixed with what the blog later became)

This sets the stage for the giant wargame sandbox/time travel soap opera that the rest of the series would become. Not quickly or even the most effectively, but it still does. I’ll admit that the “alternate sandbox” approach is my own favorite way of wargaming, which is why I’ve grown fonder of the series. I’ve found later, similar installments in a series hard to review, and this is one of them. But still, this is where it really clicks into place.

Review: Pacific Storm

Pacific Storm

The Kirov series is over fifty books long and counting. But the third entry, Pacific Storm, was planned as a potential stopping point, according to the introduction of a later entry. And while I normally criticize series from Jack Ryan to the Survivalist for passing good opportunities to conclude, it’s for the best that this one sailed right by it.

After having fought through the Mediterranean in the second book, the missile cruiser battles in the Pacific in the third. Besides the issues with the prose, the encounters fall short because the disparity between World War II ships that don’t know what they’re dealing with and a futuristic warship that does means that all the battles have to be contrived in some fashion. Pretty much the only things that work are various surprise gimmicks, close range, and pure numbers, and that’s barely enough to sustain a three-book series.

The ending still involves sequel hooks, but features the ship going back to its present with its crew having realized they started the (nuclear) World War III by firing on an American submarine. When they see the submarine after their “excursion”, they avoid attacking it. Meanwhile, their experiences have changed the “past” significantly. This would be a perfectly good conclusion that still gave room to continue, but it would have concluded three stilted, modestly out-there books. Instead, the series got bigger, more complicated, and, yes, better.

Review: Hitler Invades The United States

Hitler Invades The United States

I’d thought that Hitler Invades The United States was going to be just a dime-a-dozen work of internet alternate history. I was mostly right, but one part of it was a lot weirder than I thought, and that part both makes it lower quality and more interesting to write about.

The point of divergence is that the Germans delay their campaign so that the wunderwaffe can be ready. With said wunderwaffe, they easily take over the USSR. Then they launch a successful and “essentially unopposed” (exact words) invasion of Britain. Then it comes time to-guess. It’s not exactly the most plausible or original World War II alternate history story out there.

The story itself is a clunky mess of what you’d probably get if you only looked at the most shallow and popular sources of World War II, and then decided that an American invasion had to happen. The Axis invades the US and is only stopped when the Americans drop a nuke on Nuremberg-at which point the war ends instantly. But the real “star” is the conference room.

Barring a few “recollections” from participants, this book is entirely conferences and meetings, written in a fashion that feels like the script for a stage play. I know this genre has a lot of conference room scenes, but this takes the cake. And they’re not even done well.

What I think makes this interesting to look at is how something like this compares with Robert Conroy, who also wrote technically inaccurate alternate history tales of the US getting invaded. At least with Conroy you had a proper novel, even with often-subpar execution.  Here, it’s the kind of “semi-exposition” alternate history that in theory should be used in places where a normal narrative wouldn’t work, but in practice I feel is used likely because it’s easy to write.

What this has in conclusion is the negative elements of two types of alternate history “traditions” (as per Alexander Wallace’s excellent article) amplified at the same time. One perceived negative element of the “print tradition” is that it’s less plausible and tends to focus on the most visible and obvious trends, like the American Civil War or World War II. This is that. However, it also has the issues with storytelling (and then some) that the “internet tradition” can have. The result is the worst of both.